Should Scrutiny of Legislative Foreign Travel be Part of Needed Charter School Reform?
by Denis Smith

On May 14, the Columbus Dispatch carried a Washington Post story about a 2013 congressional junket to Azerbaijan that has come to light recently. According to the Post, 10 members of Congress and 32 staffers, part of a group of more than 300 well-connected Americans, received an all-expenses paid trip to this oil-rich former Soviet Republic and returned with exotic gifts.

In order to provide cover for the congressional junketeers, lest they fall afoul of (heaven forbid) law and regulation, some voodoo accounting was deployed. “The State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic, known as SOCAR, allegedly funneled $750,000 through non-profit corporations based in the United States to conceal the source of the funding for the conference in the former Soviet republic…,” according to the Post story.

Inasmuch as current laws prohibit foreign governments from engaging in activities that might influence the formation of national policy, one wonders if there are similar examples of junketeering on the state level that might raise questions about seeming influence on state law and regulation.

As Sarah Palin would say, you betcha.

For Ohio, the Niagara Foundation might provide an example, as it seems to show some similarities with the activities of SOCAR, though it has no apparent government ties.  A non-profit, Chicago-based Niagara is an organization whose honorary president is Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish exile and religious leader living in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. Niagara shares close ties with Concept Schools, also based in Chicago, a regional charter school management company linked to Gulen and his adherents.

As part of the larger Gulen network, Concept manages charter schools in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Concept operates 19 charter schools in Ohio, and there are currently 147 schools that are part of the Gulen network, making it the second largest of the national charter chains.

Like SOCAR, Niagara and other Gulen-related organizations have offered elected officials and state regulators free trips to Turkey and sponsored receptions for state legislators. The following link details the travel sponsorship activities of these organizations on a state-by-state basis. It should be of some interest to Ohio residents that Cliff Rosenberger, currently Speaker of the House, is one of the legislators identified as the recipient of a trip to Turkey sponsored by Niagara.

In a post from April 2012, the Niagara Foundation’s website also identified three Ohio legislators that made a trip to Turkey, including Rosenberger. The group’s itinerary included Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Kayseri, and Antalya, according to Niagara’s website.

A 2013 report, “Concept Schools, Illinois, and the Gulen Movement,” found that the organization’s strategies are to “seek access to public officials, academics, and other influential people and VIPs, usually to offer a gift, an invitation to a special event or honorary dinner, a trip to Turkey, etc.” That same report contains this statement from the American Foreign Policy Council: “Gulen himself lives in the Poconos, a rural tourist hub in northeast Pennsylvania. He inspires his followers from America, making him, among other things, the most powerful figure in the world of American charter schools.”

In absorbing all of this, gentle reader, what can we take from these statements, other than the fact that the most powerful American charter school figure is not even an American?

Could it be that private, non-profit foundations (Niagara) exist to work in cooperation with charter school operators (Concept) to promote cultural understanding by offering all-expenses paid or largely subsidized trips to Turkey? Or could it be that the best way to achieve cultural understanding is to invite legislators, state policymakers, and perhaps even charter school authorizers on guided trips?

If you are skeptical about the real purposes of these trips – or junkets, as they are labeled when it comes to describe some congressional travel – then what should be in place in state law and regulation to ensure that transparency and accountability are present and that the public interest is served?

The tool that should help the public is probably already in place:

No public official shall use a position of authority or influence or office to secure anything of value or the promise or offer of anything of value that may manifest a substantial and improper influence with respect to his/her duties. R.C. 102.03(D)

This section of the Ohio Revised Code has served as one of the core features of the state’s ethics law. But in light of the activity of the Niagara Foundation and its allied organization, Concept Schools, state ethics law needs to be strengthened to include everyone that makes a living in the charter school industry, including employees of for-profit management companies, as well as non-profit organizations that serve as charter school authorizers. Whether state, school district, corporate or non-profit, the principle needs to be the same – by having access to public funds, no one can use a position of authority or influence to secure a gift or benefit as the result of their position. Certainly, there would be major pushback on expanding the language defining a “public official” to everyone who otherwise benefits directly from working in the charter school industry. But if we want to start on real reform of these so-called schools of choice, current ethics law needs to be greatly revised.

Since it is known that the current speaker, one among many others in positions of authority or influence, has benefited from a trip to Turkey while serving in the state legislature that supposedly monitors the operation, condition and performance of charter schools, what does the public need to know so that individuals can be held more accountable in the future due to increased transparency requirements in state ethics laws?

Here are some questions that need to be addressed:

  • How can “anything of value” not include the cost of an overseas trip by legislators?
  • What other members of the legislature have accepted anything of value from the Niagara Foundation and Concept Schools? Since legislators regularly vote on charter school policy and funding, would this constitute a conflict-of-interest for some members in light of the state ethics laws? If other current members have accepted trips, do any serve on such key committees as education and finance?
  • Have invitations for travel been conveyed to employees of private agencies that work in the charter school industry, inasmuch as Ohio law allows non-profit organizations to serve as charter school authorizers? If this has occurred, shouldn’t there be voluntary disclosure as part of the charter school clean-up and reform process?
  • Have third-parties, like the SOCAR example with the congressional delegation, been used to extend invitations and pay for travel so that other, more well-known organizations, have some cover and avoid the limelight?
  • Has any member of the legislature or any other public agency ever disclosed the approximate cost of a trip sponsored by any organization that has an interest in the continued development of privately operated, publicly funded charter schools?
  • Has any member returned with any gifts, and if so, has the value been accurately reported? This question is posed in light of the work of the Office of Congressional Ethics and its findings. The Post story contains this interesting passage: “Investigators also said lawmakers received a number of gifts, including crystal tea sets, briefcases, silk scarves, turquoise earrings, gold-painted plates and Azerbaijani rugs. Some congressional staff members told the investigators they thought that the rugs were worth about $300 — $50 below the reporting threshold — and that they didn’t need to disclose them on their forms filed with the Ethics Committee.”

These questions are raised in light of the ethics probe underway in Washington that is centered on foreign travel and the need for full disclosure and transparency regarding the trip, its sponsors, and any intended influence on the legislative process.  But they are also only the tip of the iceberg.

Like the Titanic, the for-profit charter school industry has for too long been sailing in dangerous, murky, non-transparent waters, on a zigzag course to disaster. Addressing these legitimate questions is important in the continuing work of delivering systemic charter school reform. After all, we have these questions in search of answers.

But there’s one more thing. Since we have been talking about ethics law and regulation, it should be understood that the very people who write and enact such laws should start leading by example. For the very people who champion these so-called schools of choice by the creation of law and regulation, there is no other choice.

“No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session,” Mark Twain once observed. For the citizens of Ohio, however, the ironic thing might be that we in fact may be safer when the legislature is in town rather than on an overseas junket sponsored by some organization unknown to us.

So is it time for the legislature to investigate itself (snicker)? As Sarah Palin would say, you betcha.


NOTE:  Since this article was written, a reception for members of the legislature sponsored by the Niagara Foundation was held in the Statehouse Atrium on May 20..


Denis Smith is a retired public school administrator who has worked as a charter school consultant for an Ohio charter school sponsor organization and as a staff member in the Ohio Department of Education’s Office of Community Schools.  As such, he is a charter school watchdog and has also served as a director of communications for several organizations.